The day after we ran an obituary about Vera Oliphant, the quirky Mount Helix resident who visited slaughterhouses to feed cows candy bars, I received a voice message from reader Hugh Lester. He was on a train headed to a funeral and had just read Oliphant’s story. He thought I’d be interested in the life of the woman to whom he was about to pay respects.

Lester told me a story about a man he’d met only once, during a bike ride. The man was a prominent and well-loved member of the national cycling community. While Lester struggled to finish the challenging bike course, the man had encouraged him onward with an inspiring story of a cycling trip he’d taken with his wife. The man’s attentiveness to a less experienced cyclist left a deep impression on Lester.

By coincidence, Lester came across an announcement on an online forum last week that the man’s wife had died. He had never met her. His only connection to her was through her husband’s story, but it had so impressed him that he felt compelled to attend her funeral.

The paid obituaries we read in newspapers each week serve functions similar to the story Lester heard. They summarize in a few lines and in a small way encapsulate the life of a person who’s died.

The anecdotes usually leave me wanting to know more. But in the occasional listing, some element or line is so peculiar, so eyebrow-raising — and its lack of context so blaring — that it almost dares you not to call up the family and ask for an explanation. So that’s what I do. These are the listings that I’ve pursued for full-length obituaries.

The paid obituary for Marie “Peter” Ettlesen noted that she’d died without a friend by her side. Charles Goldstein’s said he was Pep Boys’ longest serving employee. Robert Rackley’s said he had “lathed” houses across San Diego in chicken wire for his entire career.

In Oliphant’s, I had to know more about a picture — she was hugging a lion. In another obituary, a son said his father’s body had been donated to science at his request, that there would be no memorial, and asked that in lieu of sending flowers, the reader plant a tree. He then quoted J.C. Penney. His family never returned my calls, and the questions still gnaw at me.

What always amazes me is that each person I’ve written about has been chosen with a certain degree of randomness. Skimming through any particular day’s obituaries, I’ve selected a person and thought, “This person must have an interesting story.” This is why writing obituaries is so enjoyable. They allow you to ask probing questions about otherwise ordinary people you never met and peel away the layers of their lives, to the extent their surviving family can reconstruct it. Their stories have, inevitably, been fascinating.

I was pleased to receive the phone call earlier this week and was encouraged by comments from readers who recognized the importance of telling the stories of everyday San Diegans in a little more depth. And, though skimming paid obituaries for ideas is never dull, I enjoy receiving personal pitches more. If you know of someone with a fascinating story — and fascinating takes many forms — who has recently died, shoot me an e-mail at


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